Home Political science British Humanitarianism and the Congo Reform Movement, 1896-1913
Context and Questions
Victory or Delusion?
On 16 June 1913, the final meeting of the Congo Reform Association (CRA) convened at London’s Westminster Palace Hotel. Delegates from all over the United Kingdom gathered to celebrate the organization’s triumph over a terrible colonial evil. The Association’s Official Organ listed 67 attendees by name; many others attended as well. Observing the Anglican, Baptist, Methodist, and Congregational luminaries on the platform, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, one might have thought this was a religious convocation. Aristocrats, MPs, former colonial governors, newspaper editors, and philanthropists rounded out the gathering. Sir Gilbert Parker, the Canadian-born novelist and Conservative Member of Parliament, opened the meeting by praising his fellow MPs as a victorious army—one that had fought for human dignity and against criminal behavior. This army, he observed, had united different parties, political beliefs, and religions, in unspoken contrast with the divisive Boer War. Their arguments over Britain’s behavior in that war had been subsumed in a cause they could agree on: the battle for justice in the Congo. Parker reminded attendees that both Houses of Parliament had taken up the question for ten years without regard for party allegiances.
Edward Talbot, Bishop of Winchester, read the motion to dissolve the Association because “its main purposes have now been secured.” He then introduced E.D. Morel, praising him as the man that God had raised up to lead the movement to success. Morel touched on the movement’s long history and the current state of affairs in the Congo, now administered along normal lines. In the world outside, Bulgaria attacked Serbia and Greece that very day, starting the second Balkan war in an ominous prelude to the coming world war. But in the meeting room, the world was becoming a better place, thanks to the persistence of good men and women determined to end one of the great evils of the world.
The dissolution of the Congo Reform Association invites skepticism. Some accounts have compared the reformers’ boasts to the world situation and concluded that the organization had failed. With the Great War beginning just over a year later, one scholar posited that European security needs had trumped the reform movement, forcing it to dissolve in despair. Although this theory has been disproved, it still surfaces because of the endurance of academic writing in scholarly journals. More recently, some historians have attributed the dissolution to its failure to sustain public interest, especially after several missionary societies abandoned the cause in 1910. Another version of the failure thesis concludes that the Association had little to boast of because the Belgian regime that replaced the Congo Free State was itself far from being a paragon of colonial virtue.
In contrast to these gloomy pictures, some have agreed with the speeches at the last meeting and held up the Congo Reform Association as a model organization, succeeding at its objectives and deserving of the accolades at the Westminster Palace Hotel. This study concludes that the Congo reform movement could boast of a triumph, albeit an incomplete one. As Morel told the organization’s Executive Committee the month before, the Congo Reform Association could not be responsible for healing the Congo; its job had been to stop the bleeding by overturning an iniquitous system of rule, and it could claim success in that. The specific conditions that it had fought had largely ended, leading to a material change in the lives of the Congolese people. (Though the inhabitants of the Congo Free State did not think of themselves as “Congolese” at the time, Europeans used this term, and this book will follow their lead.)
However, the reformed Congo suffered from three weaknesses. Most immediately, the reforms were incomplete: some rights, such as access to land, were not codified in law, and those that were legally promulgated were vulnerable to reversal. A dramatic reduction in forced labor for private purposes had not eliminated the practice. More broadly, the reform movement left an institutional vacuum in its wake. The Association advocated principles that could apply to all tropical colonies, but there was no international mechanism to monitor and enforce them in French Congo, Portuguese Angola, German Kamerun, and the Belgian Congo itself. The final flaw, obvious decades later, was that the movement did not contemplate self-government. But it is a mistake to evaluate the movement’s degree of success or failure against a standard based on the ideologies and values professed half a century later. The movement is best judged by considering its own goals in the context of the ideas, actions, possibilities, and material conditions of the times.
This particular movement was not a mass force that then found leaders. It had to be coaxed into existence, given institutional form, and sustained by a few individuals whose importance is still a matter of debate, none more so than E.D. Morel. His centrality comes not just from his role as Honorary Secretary, so called because the CRA did not pay him a salary. His papers provide much of the surviving documentary evidence. His correspondence shows him to be sensitive to criticism and in constant need of reassurance; consequently, the archives brim with praise for the man and his work. In addition, his sometimes cantankerous interpersonal relationships loom large in the archival record—so large that they can overshadow the main story. Morel’s role in the movement, his conflicts, and his affections need to be put in their place, neither glorified nor dismissed, to understand the movement and how the initiative for reform shifted over time.
Morel and others claimed that the movement was comparable only to the battle against the slave trade a century before. This is a distraction. Though the movement had unusual aspects, it had far more in common with other reforming and humanitarian campaigns than the participants admitted in their pursuit of support and impact. However, invoking the heroic past did have a purpose beyond inspiring its adherents with the borrowed finery of abolitionism. The Congo reformers used the imagined golden age of British humanitarian intervention as a standard to measure the government’s handling of the Congo question. The government often failed this test, provoking mounting criticism from the reformers until the entire structure of British foreign policy-making was at issue.
This idealized humanitarianism also spoke to British anxieties that reached far beyond the Congo question. The movement flourished at a time when an increasing sense of uneasiness and vulnerability hit British society and government. Many of the old certainties about the stability and reasonableness of the British imperial nation-state had come under attack by social stresses and international threats that loomed larger than in previous decades, leading to what Roy Hattersley calls the “strange mixture of confidence and uncertainty” in Edwardian society.
The reformers assured the public and government that, by embracing Congo reform, they were restoring British moral leadership in the world. At a time when national degeneration and regeneration were commonly used terms, the reformers offered a way to regenerate Britain’s national pride and confidence. This trope appears in letters, articles, CRA publications, and in speeches made throughout the campaign. In a time of uncertainty, the Congo Reform Association offered Britons a way to reconnect with a positive image of their country, in much the same way that the anti-slave trade movement helped British society rebuild its moral capital over a century earlier.
This book takes the reform movement itself as its primary object of study. It examines the ideologies of the movement’s pioneers; its goals, evolving structure, membership, strategy, and tactics; its international connections; and its impact on the Congo. As an episode in the long tradition of British overseas humanitarianism, the movement relied heavily on well-established motivations and practices. It was simultaneously a humanitarian lobbying effort to influence British foreign policy, a research organization, and a mass movement that rallied large numbers of people to express their support for change. Understanding the depth of popular support for the movement complicates some recent accounts of how that support translated into pressure for change.
The oft-praised agency of the Congo Reform Association did not bring about change by itself. The British Foreign Office, initially reluctant to speak against Leopold’s system, became an increasingly important reforming force in its own right, and the initiative shifted from the Association to the Foreign Office. Morel’s personal influence with the Foreign Office waxed through 1908, illuminating policy choices and principles for its staff, then precipitously waned, beginning with his public attack on the foreign policy establishment in June 1909. After this, the Association became more a gadfly than a mover of events or even ideas, though it kept the informed British public from forgetting the Congo by pricking its conscience in a world of distracting events that struck much nearer home.
With affiliates in other countries and personal contacts with key individuals in Belgium, the British reformers were at the hub of a transnational movement that generated its own dynamic. The reformers and organizations in other countries, most importantly in Belgium, are reintegrated into the story of Congo reform in the later discussion of transnationalism.
This analysis also questions Morel’s emphasis on his own centrality to every event while giving due credit for his perseverance, energy, and his vision of the movement as an organization. Like his contemporary, Lenin, he believed in the importance of a centralized movement that was well disciplined in its message and tactics. His ability to enforce this discipline made the Congo Reform Association far more effective than previous efforts. On the other hand, the loss of influence in the Foreign Office in 1909 was primarily Morel’s responsibility.
This new interpretation of the movement neither adulates nor trivializes Morel but makes an effort to incorporate the human and structural factors that created the movement’s flawed success.
The Westminster Palace Hotel was the site of different kinds of activism. The Museum of London displays a shard of glass from the window of the hotel’s main dining room, where the CRA officially disbanded in 1913. Suffragists fanning out from Parliament had broken windows there on 21 November 1911. Police arrested over 200 activists, including Emmeline and Frederick Pethick Lawrence, who had donated ?5 to the Congo Reform Association. Sent to prison, their jailers force-fed them when they went on hunger strike. The fight for the Congo entailed no such risks for its British participants, secure in their great distance from the scene of the crime. Their battle against what they perceived as the natural indifference of the British public and the hesitation of the Foreign Office did not require violence. Though this fits into a half-century of law-abiding Britons demanding reform, the early 1900s had undermined this pacific tradition, with increasing strife over women’s suffrage, labor relations, and the Irish question. The Congo reform movement illuminates a different aspect of that world: an arena where reformers could invoke British virtue to spur their compatriots and government to be once again a force for good in the world, as they imagined it had been in years past.
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